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Schools like Churchill don't lose prestige

Parents and students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., are worried that a spectacular cheating scandal at the school will tarnish its A-plus reputation for excellence and getting students into the Ivy League. My colleague Jenna Johnson’s story on this, and other reports I have seen, suggest that Churchill’s ability to get students into good colleges is a bigger issue at the school than the moral lapses revealed by the news that some students hacked into the computer system and changed several dozen grades.

I plan to address the student cheating, at Churchill and elsewhere, in my Metro section column Monday. But the reputational worries are easy to dismiss. On that count, everybody should relax.

Experience and research show it is very hard to change a school’s reputation, whether it is good or bad. The national publicity about this incident will have no effect on the college prospects of any students not under investigation. The eight being looked at (three have withdrawn from school and five have been suspended) probably won’t suffer much either.

If you ask college admissions officers how well they know the high schools from which their students apply, they will often say they keep close track of them to help make the best possible decisions at admission time. In a few cases, they will be telling the truth. Some of the most selective colleges pay admissions officers well enough to persuade them to stay for decades and accumulate deep understanding of hundreds of schools.

But most colleges don’t have those kinds of resources, and rely on the widespread (and usually accurate) assumption that the fewer low-income students a high school has, the better it prepares students for college. Only 2 percent of Churchill students are from impoverished families, as measured by the federal school lunch subsidy program, so it is by definition in the innermost circle of high-prestige schools.

Those few admissions officers who know Churchill from personal visits and research also will discount the scandal because they know it has not affected the quality of the teaching, and they have no legal right to use the scandal in judging a student who hasn't been convicted of something.

Average family income also determines the reputation of a high school in the community at large. I read a research report several years ago (which I have unfortunately been unable to locate) that showed that even sharp drops in taxpayer support for a school did little to its reputation for years afterwards. This was a prime issue in Westchester County, N.Y., where I used to live. In that area, and others like it, school districts are small, often with just one high school, and school budgets are on local ballots every year. Activists (often seniors without students at home, like me) would sometimes try to urge no votes on those budgets, and pro-school people would argue that that would kill the school’s reputation.

But it wasn’t true. Some very good schools did lose budget votes, but their prestige did not suffer in any measurable way.

The only change that has a chance of altering a school's reputation is an influx of low-income families. If you check the prices in the real estate ads for Potomac, you will see that that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 9, 2010; 2:02 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Churchill High School cheating scandal, Churchill reputation is safe, family incomes define school prestige, reputations rarely change  
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Comments

My colleague Jenna Johnson’s story on this, and other reports I have seen, suggest that Churchill’s ability to get students into good colleges is a bigger issue at the school than the moral lapses revealed by the news that some students hacked into the computer system and changed several dozen grades.
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That's a pretty big leap, sir. And perhaps it is in part due to the fact that the portions of last night's meeting relating to future ethics training at the school went entirely unreported in your colleague's article. So maybe it's the other way around -- the Post is more concerned about reporting the reputational aspects, because it fits a pre-set narrative.

For example, have you considered any other explanations for Churchill's reputational rankings? Perhaps the school's graduates have demonstrated in objectively verifiable ways over the course of many years that they are well-prepared for college and do well at the schools that admit them. Maybe that success correlates with family income and real estate values, but it is not caused by them. Maybe the vast majority of Churchill kids, past and present, worked hard and played by the rules.

Posted by: OWNTF | March 9, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

PS -- One of the reasons the real estate values are what they are is that there is a premium to live in certain districts. So I think you've got the relationship between real estate values and schools bass-ackwards.

Posted by: OWNTF | March 9, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

For OWNTF, the presence of a great school like Churchill certainly does raise real estate values. And I am certain you are right about the hardworking students and their successful lives. But unfortunately I have run across too many high schools that had large numbers of low-income kids, and minorities, and had a terrific academic record, with strong faculty and great leaders, but still did not have a great reputation. If there were some way to quantify the qualities you describe and rate each high school, we could test your theory. But at the moment all that most people know is that the school has almost all affluent parents, and that is what, the research indicates, produces very good scores from their children and great prestige. It is all that people have to go on. I am delighted that the moral issues took up much of the discussion. I will have to ask our reporters for a fill.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 9, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Well, I'm quibbling, and in a field where I am no expert, but does the research indicate that affluence is correlated to the test scores, or that it causes them? My point is simply that Churchill has a reputation in college admissions offices, and my hypothesis would be that the reputation has been earned by student performance in those colleges over time.

I wouldn't say that moral issues took up more of the discussion than admissions at the meeting, but I also wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the parents as a group care more about the latter than the former.

There certainly is plenty of room for moral instruction in the whole tale, but I don't see how that moral instruction would relate to socio-economic class, unless one is pre-disposed to view everything through a Marxist lens.

I look forward to your piece on Monday.

Posted by: OWNTF | March 9, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

good point. it is correlation, not necessarily causation. But the link is so tight, about .75, that it is hard to escape the conclusion that money means the parents had a good education, give one to their kids, make sure they are in good schools, and the presence of a critical mass of such people raises the level of expectation, making the school different from most. It is sort of chicken and egg, though.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 9, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Mathews, I'm not sure if anyone has mentioned the terrible message that is being sent/absorbed to/from students and that is, Cheaters Win..Sometimes.

In addition, what about students that are oh-so-very-tempted to cross that technology line and changing grades in the future? What if these same students that got away with changing grades, share what they've done with other students?

This situation sets a terrible precedent especially if the remaining students that are responsible go unpunished (unfound).

Sometimes other factors are more important, or at the very lest, just AS important, then prestige.

Posted by: TwoSons | March 9, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

This column is rather sad. I think we make a mistake when we equate poverty with poor schools. You say "But unfortunately I have run across too many high schools that had large numbers of low-income kids, and minorities, and had a terrific academic record, with strong faculty and great leaders, but still did not have a great reputation."

That is just awful. Not that you said it but that we all buy into these stereotypes.

As far as Churchill goes, too bad they got the negative publicity, but what I noticed about misbehavior (criminal or otherwise) at upper class schools is that it seems to be of this sort. The schools in poor areas seem to have fights and upper class areas seem to have this subversive stuff.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 9, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

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